The fitness world is filled with myths. Some of the most persistent gems are that you can only build muscle by lifting heavy, cardio (or weightlifting, or any other form of exercise) is the best way to burn fat, and that soreness is a sign of a good workout.
But perhaps the most stubborn one is the “anabolic window”—the idea that you need to consume protein (preferably in the form of a shake) immediately after you exercise. Miss that fleeting post-workout window, and you might as well have not worked out at all. At least that's how the conventional thinking goes. Let's take a moment to distinguish true fitness fact from fiction.
What Is the Anabolic Window?
To be fair, the anabolic window is based in common sense. When you lift weights (or do HIIT, or log miles, or swim laps) you cause microtrauma (i.e., microscopic tears and damage) in your muscles. That might sound bad, but it’s a natural part of working out and a key stimulus for muscle growth. It not only spurs your body repair the damage, but also causes your muscles to grow larger and stronger so that they can better handle the stress of working out next time.
Proponents of it believe that your muscles are especially receptive to protein in the 30 to 60 minutes following a workout, and if you consume protein within that brief timeframe, you’ll maximize their growth. But here’s the thing: while there are plenty of studies that support the benefits of a post-workout shake, few suggest that you have to scarf it down immediately after completing your last rep.
Anabolic Window: Fact vs Fiction
The reality is that the window is not as fleeting as once believed. Indeed, research suggests that it lasts anywhere from four to six hours.
That means that as long as you consume a protein-rich meal within a couple of hours on either side of a workout, your muscles will likely have all of the nutrients they need to adapt and grow.
How You Should Take Protein for Muscle Gains
Focus more on daily protein intake than on specific protein timing. If you’re someone who lifts regularly, shoot for .5 to .9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day to maximize your gains.
Does that mean you should ditch your post-workout shake? Not at all. That shake can help you meet your daily goal, which is more important that capitalizing on the mythical anabolic window. In short, go ahead and make your way to the smoothie bar after you rack your weights—but there's no need to rush.
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